Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. Matthew 2:1-2
For 2,000 years, the wise men of the east have intrigued us. Who were they? From whence did they come? Whom were they seeking? And why?
Could their quest have had anything to do, even in part, with the principles of law and government that western civilization has held so dear?
I believe it did. It should not surprise us that these kings or magi would be concerned about law and government. Christ is our personal Savior, but He is lord of the nations as well (Isaiah 9:6-7; Revelation 12:5, 19:15). Matthew emphasizes Christ’s role as lord of the nations by presenting the account of the magi who came to worship Him. Luke emphasizes Christ’s role as personal Savior by presenting the account of the shepherds, common men who came to worship Him. Both are necessary for a complete understanding of His earthly mission.
They sought what man has sought from the beginning: the Savior who would release man from the curse of Adam’s Fall and restore him to his original paradise.
Genesis 3 records that God expelled our original parents from Eden and cursed the ground for their sake after they sinned against Him. But God also promised them a Savior, the “Seed of the Woman” (3:15) who will bruise the head of the serpent. Throughout the generations the faithful have looked for the coming of God’s promised Messiah.
The Rise of the Messianic State
But others have looked to false saviors, and counterfeit messiahs have arisen in every age. God had promised in His Word that the Savior would come first as a suffering servant (Isaiah 53:1-12) and only later as a victorious king (Revelation 19:11-21). But many, even among God’s own people, looked only for the latter. The Christ on the Cross was rejected or ignored, as man looked to the civil government realm for salvation and the restoration of the Golden Age.
Not that civil government is ungodly. Quite the opposite. God ordained civil government (Romans 13:1-6; I Peter 2:13-17) to restrain the exercise of sin, enforce order, protect human rights, and foster social organization. Those who are called to civic office have a high godly responsibility to perform.
The problem arises when men look to civil government to perform the functions God has delegated to the Church, or when men look to the Church to perform the functions God has delegated to civil government — when civil rulers seek to become saviors, and when false messiahs become kings.
Most emphatically, this does not mean government must be divorced from God, or that law must be divorced from Biblical morality. Government functions best when it is based upon the solid foundation of the Ten Commandments. Luther and Calvin both spoke of the Decalogue as the embodiment of natural law, and Dean Wigmore of Northwestern University School of Law called the Ten Commandments “the greatest short moral code ever formulated.”
But government’s role is limited to enforcing legal principles of right and wrong and defending the liberty and safety of the people. God never intended that civil government should change basic human nature, eradicate all sinful impulses, and usher in the Golden Age. Government must be godly, but government must not try to become God.
But almost from the beginning, people looked to civil rulers to usher in the Golden Age. As Ethelbert Stauffer says in his classic work Christ and the Caesars (https://www NULL.alibris NULL.com/search/books/qwork/1078842/used/Christ%20and%20the%20Caesars:%20Historical%20Sketches) (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952, 1955),
One of the earliest longings of mankind is the longing for God to appear on earth. Egyptians and Persians, Greeks and Romans, relate mysterious myths of gods who once walked the earth in human form. In annual festivals they celebrated the cult renewal of that mythical theophany — the epiphany of Apollo, the advent of the sun-god, the birth of the heavenly child of the Age, who was to lead in a new era of salvation. With ecstatic cries and hymns they called on the god to appear: “Come and do not delay!” For where the deity moves as a man among men, the dream of the ages is fulfilled, the pain of the world is scattered, and there is heaven on earth.
Such longings represent a corruption of God’s promise to send the Messiah, and the tendency to look to the State for that which only God can deliver. And when people expect the State to do that which only God can do, they begin to worship the State as God.
Deification of Emperors
This was common in the pagan world. State worship and emperor worship were the rule rather than the exception. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (http://www NULL.gutenberg NULL.org/etext/2848), tell us that Nimrod took a leading role in the building of the Tower of Babel to avenge himself on God for having destroyed the world by the Flood, and that Nimrod changed the government into a tyranny. Alexander Hislop, in his classic work The Two Babylons (http://www NULL.biblebelievers NULL.com/babylon/) (Neptune, NJ: Loiseaux, 1916, 1959), says the Sumerians made Nimrod their king, and after his death they deified him and worshiped him as chief of their pantheon of gods.
Worshiping a ruler as though he were a god seems strange to many westerners. Through centuries of Bible teaching we have come to understand God as all-powerful and all-knowing, infinitely above all that man is or could ever be. In the western view no man could ever become God.
But the pagan view is different. Gods are superior to men in knowledge and power, but they are not all-knowing or all-powerful; nor are they perfectly just or righteous. The gods have character flaws much like ours, and they find themselves in the same intrigues and betrayals as men, only on a more colossal scale. The difference between gods and men is one of degree. According to Greek mythology, somewhere between gods and men were heroes. Hercules was not a god but a hero, a man who achieved immortality by his courage and valor.
In the pagan view, then, the idea that the king could be a god, or descended from the gods, or ascended to godlike status, is not that far-fetched. And of course, pagan kings employed all the trappings and ceremonies to encourage that belief.
Israel vs. Pagan State-Worship
God’s Word and God’s people stood in marked contrast to this pagan view. Israel began as a confederate republic of twelve tribes governed by elders and judges, with no king in Israel but God Himself. The day would come when Israel would demand a king so they could be like the nations around them, but even then, Israel’s king was to be a limited monarch. God spoke prophetically through Moses in Deuteronomy 17:14-20:
When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me;
Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.
But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.
Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.
And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:
And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:
That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.
Unlike the Egyptian pharaoh who proclaimed himself to be a god and who was worshiped and obeyed as a god, Israel’s king was to be one of the people. He must be a Jew, not a foreigner; being of one blood with them, his countrymen were less likely to regard him as a god. He was not to accumulate great wealth or power, and he was to write out a copy of the law of God, read from it daily, and follow it throughout his reign. The great object was that he be under the law of God, and that “his heart be not lifted up above his brethren.” The king ruled by the law of God and according to the law of God, but he himself was not God but rather one of the people.
Daniel vs. State-Worship
This was the message of the prophet Daniel to the great Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar — that God “removeth kings, and setteth up kings.”(Daniel 2:21) Nebuchadnezzar erected a great golden image and commanded all to fall down and worship it (Chapter 3); the image represented the Babylonian state, and Nebuchadnezzar as the head of state. Daniel’s three friends were willing to show all the respect due a great Babylonian king, but they were willing to face death by fire rather than worship this image or that which it represented (3:17-18). As Daniel proclaimed in 4:32 and as King Nebuchadnezzar finally came to understand at the end of Daniel Chapter 4, “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will.”
The Apostle Paul declared that the civil ruler is “ordained of God” and is the “minister of God to thee for good.” (Romans 13:1-6) Yet Paul wrote these words from the Corinthian jail, indicating that governmental authority is not absolute. Peter also wrote of the duty to obey civil rulers (I Peter 2:13-17), but when commanded to stop preaching the Gospel he and the other apostles declared, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
Jesus: Render Unto Caesar
In the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry the Jews faced testy relations with the Roman authorities. In Luke 20:19-25 we read that the chief priests and scribes asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus noted the image and superscription of Caesar on the coin and said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” Lord Acton wrote concerning this passage,
…when Christ said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s, He gave to the state a legitimacy it had never before enjoyed, and set bounds to it that had never yet been acknowledged. And He not only delivered the precept but he also forged the instrument to execute it. To limit the power of the State ceased to be the hope of patient, ineffectual philosophers and became the perpetual charge of a universal Church.
At the time of Christ, Rome was in transition from republic to empire. The SPQR (Senatus Populus Que Romana) that had governed Rome for half a millennium was becoming a rubber stamp for the emperors who increasingly claimed for themselves the attributes of divinity. Octavian subdued the empire, and the Senate gave him the title Augustus Caesar (Divine King). He issued coins superinscribed Caesar Divi Filius, “Caesar Son of God.” Throughout the Empire temples were built and sacrifices and prayers offered to the goddess Roma and the god Augustus, and the poet Virgil proclaimed of Augustus, “This is the man, the one who has been promised again and again,” the world savior who was usher in the age of gold. As Stauffer observes, at this time the ancient world trembled with excitement that deliverance was at hand.
The Magi Seek the True King
And yet—the wise men of the east came not to worship Augustus, but to seek Him who is born King of the Jews.
Who were these wise men? Matthew calls them magoi or Magi (2:1). They probably came from the eastern countries of Persia or Babylon. The priestly caste in those countries known as the Magi had existed for centuries and may have borne some similarity to the Celtic Druids. The Bible does not call them kings, but Tertullian writing around 200 AD says they were well-nigh kings. They were highly influential advisors to the Persian and Babylonian kings, as Daniel attests (Daniel 1:19-21; 2:2, 24; 4:7-9; 5:7), and probably played a prominent role in selecting a new king. In so doing, they looked to the will of the heavens, and they believed the will of the heavens was revealed through the stars. And as they looked to the heavens they saw the Star that led them to Bethlehem.
No scientific theory can adequately explain that Star. Men have called it a meteor, a comet, a heliactical rising, a supernova. But none of these theories can explain a Star that appeared in the east, led the Magi to the west slowly enough that they could follow, then suddenly reversed course in Jerusalem and led to the southeast to Bethlehem. The Star must have been a special creation of God, perhaps a theophanic appearance of God Himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit to lead these Magi to Jesus Christ.
But why would these Magi care that One had been born King of the Jews? Possibly they understood the Hebrew concept of law and government, for the Persians recognized that the king is subject to the law and powerless to change the law (Daniel 6:8, 12, 15). More likely, they remembered Daniel the Prophet, who had once led the Magi himself.
Daniel: Master of the Magi
Daniel had been taken captive to Babylon around 605 B.C. He was recognized to be ten times wiser than the Magi and astrologers (Daniel 1:20) and rose to prominence in Babylon and later in Persia. He was a trusted advisor to the Babylonian and Persian kings, and in Daniel 2:24 he used his influence to save the Magi from execution. In Daniel 4:9 he is called “master of the magicians (magi),” so very likely the learned Magi of Christ’s time would recall Daniel and his writings.
In Daniel 9 we read the most precise of all Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of Jesus Christ:
Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon the holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy.
Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.
And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.
And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate.
The “weeks” (Hebrew hephtah) of Daniel 9 are commonly interpreted as seven-year periods. Sixty-nine seven-year periods equal 483 years. King Artaxerxes of Persia gave the decree to restore and build Jerusalem in 445 BC. 483 years later would be 38 A.D., but the Hebrew year was twelve 30-day months or 360 days. Factoring in the difference would bring us to 31 A.D., the likely date of Christ’s crucifixion.
We do not know how much of this the Magi understood. But they remembered the words of their old master, Daniel, and knew that the salvation of the world would come not through the legions of Caesar but through the One Who would be born King of the Jews. And without condoning astrology, God used the means most familiar to them to lead them to His Son.
But the world continued to look for a conquering prince, not a suffering savior. Augustus reigned well for the most part, and his reign brought in the pax romana or Roman peace. But the pax romana only restrained sin and evil; it did not conquer them. And after the death of Augustus his plan for government crumbled.
But the ancient dream of the god-man who would bring heaven down to earth remained.
With the rise of the Roman Empire, the classical longing for a savior was given a political form. The coming savior was the Emperor, and as the people’s hopes were dashed with the tragic collapse of each Emperor, they thirstily looked with equal hope to the next.
The Messianic State Turns Demonic
When Nero ascended the throne in 54 A.D. at the age of seventeen, the philosopher Seneca said of him,
…as the red of morning drives away dark night, as neither haze nor mist endure before the sun’s rays, as everything becomes bright when my chariot appears, so it is when Nero ascends the throne. His golden locks, his fair countenance, shine like the sun as it breaks through the clouds. Strife, injustice and envy collapse before him. He restores to the world the Golden Age.
A lover of Greek culture, Nero proclaimed himself to be “Zeus the Liberator” and embarked upon a reign of madness, tyranny, and bloodbaths. He covered Christians with tar and set them up as living torches in the imperial parks, murdered his mother and wife, and kicked to death his lover who was expecting his child. After fourteen years the army revolted, and as Nero committed suicide his dying words were, “What an artist dies in me!”
Succeeding emperors claimed to be the best of gods but acted as the worst of men. And still, men looked to Rome for salvation, seeking the City of God through the City of the Earth. As Stauffer so graphically wrote,
The triumph of the civitas dei was to be reached by the self-exaggeration and self-destruction of the civitas terrena. The self-exaggeration and self-destruction of the classical advent philosophy was completed in the third century A.D. This is the century of which the schoolboy knows nothing because no young mind can bear the knowledge of what happened then. It was the century of the assassination of the emperors, of the sarcophagi of the dance of death, of the systematic persecutions of Christians, the century of twisted titles. Magnus, Maxiums, Maximinus, Magnentius, Maxentisu, Maximianus, Maximilianus, are the names given to themselves by those who wanted to be accounted important. In this century the political eschatology on which men had been nourished for thousands of years ran amok through the Roman world. About the year 260 Gallienus struck a coin with the inscription, “The genius of the Roman people has entered the capital of the empire.” This patron spirit was incarnate in himself, the emperor Gallienus. In the same decade the imperial genius was murdered. In the year 275 Aurelian was celebrated as “god and lord from birth.” In the same year the divine lord was murdered. The following year the emperor Probus ascended the blood-girt throne and struck a series of coins with the famous inscription Adventus Augusti and the portrait of the emperor riding up with his hand raised in greeting and blessing, led by the goddess Victoria. In the year 282 Probus was murdered. In 287 a coin of the emperor Carausius appeared, and on it we see Britannia greeting the emperor, as he arrived from the Continent, with the advent greeting Expectate Veni, Come, Thou Longed-for One. In the Advent hymn the words are “Thou Longing of all the world.” Carausius was murdered…
State Worship Today?
And the story goes on, through the collapse of Rome, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, mercantilism, colonialism, imperialism, the modern age, the postmodern and so on down through the years. In an age in which many pride themselves as being too sophisticated to believe the state is divine, the German philosopher Hegel proclaims that the State is god walking on earth, though he used the term “god” in the sense of the World-spirit. An age which rejects the transcendent God of the Bible places man, and the State as the greatest of man’s institutions, on the throne in the place of God. We give to the State all authority, we expect the State to make all important decisions, we look to the State for all material blessings, and we trust the state to make our laws and define our values. Truly, for many modern Americans the State has become our god.
And amid all this intrigue and carnage, Christ was born in a Bethlehem stable. He grew as a humble child in Nazareth, He lived and taught and served among men. He died on a Roman cross, and His enemies thought they had conquered Him. But there He paid the atoning price for the sins of the world, washing away forever the sins the emperors could only imperfectly restrain. And there He established His Kingdom, a Kingdom that is not of this world but that will endure forever.
Wise Men Still Seek Him
The Magi were wise men indeed. We don’t know how much they understood, but we know they made wise choices. They passed by the Caesars and the Herods of their day, and came to worship the newborn King. They were influential men in their day, and they respected and served the kings of their respective lands. But their souls’ allegiance was to the King of Kings, to Him who wears the mitre of eternity. They respected the godly state and that ruler who governs according to Biblical principles. But they feared the messianic State that seeks to make itself god. They knew that government service is an honorable vocation, but they also knew that earthly government will never usher in the Golden Age. Only God through His true Son can do that.
And on Christmas God did become man. God became incarnate, taking upon Himself human flesh so that He could redeem mankind through His Death on the Cross, His Resurrection, His Ascension, and His Second Coming. Wise men sought Him then, and wise men seek Him now.
Venite, Adoremus Dominum!
“O Come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!”